Expensive Beryl Cookery; PIED-A-TERRE

34 Charlotte Street, London W1P 1HJ. Tel: 0171 636 1178. Open for lunch Monday to Friday, 12.15-2.15, for dinner Monday to Saturday, 7.15-10.15. Set menus only: lunch pounds 22; dinner pounds 42. All major credit cards accepted
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The Independent Culture
MOST places called Pied a Terre sell shoes. The Pied-a-Terre that serves food in London's already restaurant-rich Charlotte Street was recommended to me by my toy-tycoon stepson. The evening could hardly have begun more promisingly: I got there on foot, having been listening to a German opera on Classic FM, and was greeted at the plate-glass door by a smiling wine waiter of oriental appearance with a French accent. He seemed seriously concerned as I disentangled the small earpieces from my lobes, then saw my small portable radio and relaxed. "Ah! I sought purr-'aps you 'ad some ear-ring prubb-lem!"

Lulled by the prospect of an evening of witty Anglo-French triple-entendre I surrendered my coat while the wine waiter went to push the plate-glass door shut and exclude the biting draught. A moment later my wife arrived, the door again stayed stuck half open, the draught reasserted itself, the wine waiter ran to push it shut, and we were shown to our table.

After the bar on the right, the Pied-a-Terre consists of a single long narrow room with pretty basic decor: a few bright Andy Warhol prints, a bunch of ferocious-looking tropical flowers and the tables and chairs. We got there very early, first orders for dinner being taken at 7.15, and were initially alone except for a self-confident young group of four talking about money at the next table and a charming lady of more mature years who kissed the head waiter in a way that made me think she might be his mother. She and her companion stayed quiet and appreciative throughout dinner, obviously enjoying everything that happened.

The pricing at the restaurant is blunt, with a note in small print across the top of the menu saying "Starters and Main Course pounds 35". For this there was a choice of eight dishes for each course. The starters ranged from pan-fried foie gras, roasted aubergine and anchovy sauce, carrying a surcharge of pounds 7, to crispy trotter and braised pork with celeriac puree; the main courses all tended to gaminess, with duck, venison, hare and roast partridge, as well as veal sweetbreads and three different kinds of fish.

We spent a good deal of time happily imagining what everything might taste like and discussing the beard of the host at the next table and what part of Lancashire he came from. Finally, we made up our minds, at least about the food. On the head waiter's recommendation I ordered steamed snails with morille, asparagus and garlic puree, and my wife asked for brochette of scallops and marinated mackerel with smoked eel and tapenade sauce. After that she thought she'd have hare fillet en croute, rosemary Duxelle and roasted root vegetables, and I said I'd like venison cutlet with casseroled cepes and roasted apples.

The wine list is extensive, ranging from a Vin de Pays at pounds 14 to a 1970 Chateau Petrus at pounds 795. Being in an expansive mood, I asked for a bottle of Burgundy, a Chorey-Les-Beaune 1992 at pounds 33.50. It was really very good indeed. Bread was brought round, most of it spiked with tomato or herbs or olives.

As eight o'clock approached the Pied-a- Terre began to fill with what I took to be its regular clientele. Large men in blue suits came in, many of them with beards and carrying expensive briefcases. My wife thought the restaurant must be what she called "near offices". She spotted one figure among the ladies she identified as "your type, or possibly Rosemary West out on parole". More ladies appeared, none of whom would have been out of place in a group portrait by Beryl Cook.

While we were waiting for our first course we were brought a small china spoon each, filled to the brim with a dark jelly, announced as "a clam in shellfish sauce". It was a bit chewy, and otherwise uninteresting. I asked where it might have come from, and got an enthusiastic description of multiple daily fish deliveries, ensuring the absolute freshness of everything they cooked, and how somebody had to be in to receive them even at seven o'clock on a Saturday morning.

My steamed snails, when they came, were very good, looking like dusty brown puff-balls, white inside and delicately textured. My wife had her reservations about the scallops: I tasted one; it was a bit short of flavour, and I began to think more about money than enjoyment. It may have been the beards and ruched skirts, but somehow the Pied-a-Terre started to seem like Another Expensive Restaurant.

The hare fillet was excellent, the pastry well cooked, the Lilliputian scraps of carrot just visible beneath it recalling the old days of nouvelle cuisine. My chunky venison cutlet similarly concealed a tiny cache of apple and what the head waiter said were trompettes de mort. Rediscovering the mood of amusing banter he suggested we might like to pay our bill before they had their effect.

We were actually having quite a good time despite my wife's insistence on making audible asides about our fellow diners - "Here comes your friend again!" (Rosemary West returning from the lavatory ) - but things continued to jar. The choice of puddings - one was "coconut and chocolate dome with coconut sauce" - only seemed to reinforce the mood of expensive Beryl Cookery. My wife ordered figs roasted in ginger and cinnamon bread with madeleine biscuits and fig syrup - this turned out to be a slightly gloomy fig sandwich - and I was marginally happier with roasted caramel-ised plums on a sable biscuit with honey sauce and plum sorbet. Before that a little extra dish of vanilla cream arrived, again suggesting a management justifying the price rather than cooking what people wanted to eat.

What upset us was a truly horrible plate of sweets - wobbly blobs of pink, rubbery pads of brown and slightly dry miniature chocolate eclairs, with a side dish of almond chippings in chocolate - that came gratis with the bill. That really upset us: even with a miserly 10 per cent tip it came for two of us to pounds 139.70.

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